Wednesday Workshop: Brevity and Completeness

Brevity or completeness?

As writers, we revel in completeness.

We feel the need to show readers how smart we are with a complete breakdown on how a fantasy society works, the complete process of how a starship's engines convert matter into energy, the complete family history and tangled webs for the setup of a romance novel, and the entire life story and 'why' of a heroine and how she can never trust another man again. You may see us doing long 'info dumps' at the start of a novel just to get all of that out there so readers can love us even more for our weaving of the web and mastery of the complexities of relationships, tragic histories, or the workings of star-drives or fantasy kingdoms.

As readers, we value brevity.

Who cares? Please get this over with! Is there something happening here or is there going to be another long-winded, talking-down-to explanation of something or someone's bad day or life that our eyes bleed with boredom and our mind reels with nervous anticipation. If you can't stand techno-thrillers with the inner workings of how a computer or jet aircraft works with this piece of technology or that weapon's design, how is it that romance does the same thing with endless backstories and inner monologue that essentially lays out the same 'why something happens' in the same way?

We want it over with.

We wish all this backstory or technical detail were somehow introduced to us piecemeal, mixed in with dialog and action so we could get things going and the story off to a great start. We don't need to know paragraphs on how a computer works just like we don't need the same amount of backstory on her troubled life.

We can hint at it. We can drop little bits here and there as we go to create interest, and get the reader wondering why. We can get the story going with her sitting in a bar, and maybe acting a little strangely, but then us figuring that out from the little tidbits dropped along the way.
She brushes the stranger off saying, "Not again."

She hangs out a little bit too close to her friends even when they say she should go over to his table.

Someone mentions Mexico, and tells her she should go because she has her passport.

She says no.

She looks around at the place where her heart was broken before.

The tan line on her ring finger.

She keeps looking at the door when someone comes in.
As a reader, a match is lit in my mind. What is going on here? Why is she so reserved? Who is she expecting to walk in? Mind you, we aren't told anything else but this, and all of a sudden, we are trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together in our minds. The blank spaces here are just as important as the pieces we do have. If we could only figure out where this one goes, and that one looks like it goes up there...
And the other book lays all of this out for us. She met her first love here. They had a whirlwind romance. They fell in love. He swept her away to Greece, to some deserted island, and he proposed to her. She wore the engagement ring for months. He needed to take care of something before the wedding. She never heard from him again. She called and called. He never called back.

She gave up waiting.
Yes, that is a great story, but there is a difference between a great story and a great introduction. I love the scene in the bar with all the questions raised, and this sets me on a 'page flipping odyssey' from page one. I love that backstory to death, but I do not want to see the book start with laying all of these cards on the table. It is like the thrill of being told a great ghost story, but having the person telling you the story start off with the secret behind the ghost.

The fun is spoiled.

The little mystery and raising of anticipation is ruined.

I want to figure things out for myself, and not be treated like I need to be told everything. Mind you, I want that little backstory about him and her and Greece to still be there when I figure everything out, but I don't want the writer to mentally take notes in chapter one and lay out the book, or even the character biographies for me in these long-winded, 'getting started' paragraphs where you can almost see the writer taking notes on the page to lay out characters, places, and plots.

I want a little more sophistication than that.

I want to start in media res and be thrust into something where I have to read carefully and pay attention to get my sea legs under me and grasp what is going on. Put in ion the party talking to important characters from page one, and skip[ the entire 'driving there' scene where the main character spends 4,000 words of mental narrative laying out the who, what, where, when, how and why of everything we are about to see. Mind you, the five W's plus the how are all important points to hit, but a great writer can hit those while at the party, mix them into the action, and keep readers guessing and wanting more while ratcheting tension up, either dramatic or erotic.

We don't need the entire plot laid out for us ahead of time. If the antagonist is a bitch, we can easily show that at the party instead of have our main character tell us that hours of reading time before we even meet the bitch.

We could do that on the first line, if we choose, with not one word of setting up happening to ruin the surprise.
"Well," she says, "not every fairy tale can come true. Welcome to life."
That. That is the first line of my book. The bitch laying out a zinger and our heroine at the bar, retreating back into her gaggle of friends to regroup and recover from having that sunburned patch of emotions slapped raw.

I don't need to lay out their relationship first, nor do I need to lay out what happened. She is a bitch and did a typically bitchy thing, and the reader is rubbed raw by this all-too-familiar event. Do I have that backstory written and how the bitch came to be a bitch? Oh yes, I have all my writer's notes squirreled off here in secret in a safe place, and I will be pulling from them as I need them. Like the squirrel with her stash of food for winter, I won't be revealing them all at once, and I will pace these reveals off when I need to show another part of the story and advance the plot another notch or two.

I have a lot of notes to pull from too. Ninety percent of writing a complex book is taking a lot of notes the reader will never see. I will have notes on what happened on the day he proposed, what he wore, what they did that day and week, some of those moments on the slow boat ride together, and a lot of material I can pull from as I write this twisting tale of lust and loss.

If I have to make something up?

It goes in the notes right then for the record, and also to make sure it doesn't conflict (or I conflict it later with something else). If I am making too much up it is time to make more notes on the events I may need to pull from now and later.

We can have brevity while delivering a complete experience.

We achieve this by being complete in our plans, yet never revealing them all.

And being selective and patient when we do.